By Stuart Mitchner
Balzac, of course, had said it all before.
-of Divide Paris
On August 18, 1850, Honoré de Balzac died in “the very pretty little house” he had made in the part of a mansion which had “escaped demolition”. Victor Hugo’s description of Balzac’s last residence may come from the pages of Esther da Costa Meyer Paris divided: urban renewal and social inequalities: 1852-1870 (Princeton University Press), where demolition is a part of life.
The first reference to a specific work by Balzac in Partage de Paris concerns a district “vividly described” in Cousine Bette (1846), a part of the city “annihilated” so that the prefect of Napoleon III Georges-Eugène Haussmann “could build the boulevard Malesherbes”. .”
Curious to read the passage mentioned, I found the most suspicious 60 pages in my copy of the Penguin edition of 1965, in which Balzac describes a “cluster of houses…with dilapidated facades…all that remains of a old quarter, being demolished since the day Napoleon decided to complete the Louvre. It is “a dark and deserted block, probably inhabited by ghosts”, the houses “shrouded in the perpetual shadow cast by the high galleries of the Louvre, blackened on this side by the north wind”. What Balzac calls “these so-called dwellings” are “bounded by a swamp on the rue de Richelieu side, a sea of broken cobblestones jostling towards the Tuileries, small plots and sinister hovels facing the galleries, and steppes of freestone “. and ruins half demolished by the old Louvre. In the spirit of Rabelais, Balzac imagines that “for nearly forty years the Louvre has been crying with open mouths from all the notched walls, from the gaping windows: ‘Take these growths off my face!'”
Balzac then leaves his mark on the passage and the city that he reinvents for centuries: “We must assume that the usefulness of this place of slaughter is recognized, and the need to symbolize in the heart of Paris this intimate alliance of misery and the splendor that characterizes the queen of capitals. Indeed, these austere ruins, … the shocking hovels of the rue du Musée, the planked enclosure where itinerant merchants display their wares, have perhaps a longer and more prosperous existence than three dynasties! There is no “maybe” about the main character Lisbeth Fischer, who is still alive in literature two centuries after profiting from the “moderate rent” demanded for rooms in “condemned houses”. And what allowed Bette to get a room with a view? The demolition of a “famous house” that once stood in the way.
Side by side
Beautifully crafted and illustrated, Paris Divided can be read alongside Balzac, thanks to da Costa Meyer’s mastery of extraordinary material drawn from art and literature, the archives of politics and society and other stories of Parisian life. All you have to do is open the book, look around, and start reading, and you know the commentary will revive generic terms like “urban renewal” and “social inequality.”
Balzac enters Paris divided in the second chapter (“Requiem”) with his favorite American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, the context being Haussmann’s “civilizing mission, a task of interior colonization, animated by the racialized fantasy of a mythical Paris where the poor threatened the lives and spaces of the wealthy.The metaphorical framework for this depiction of downtown as a jungle populated by Indians was provided by Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which had been translated into French in 1826. This reader there is a particular delight in the appearance of the New Jersey-born designer of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook.On the question of “social inequality”, Balzac is quoted comparing Paris to “a forest populated by twenty different tribes of Red Indians…all of whom live by hunting the well-to-do classes.” A more characteristic example of what Balzac takes from Cooper is his sketch of Bette as “the Mohican whose snares are inescapable, whose thoughts are impenetrably concealed, whose quick decisions are made on the evidence given by senses developed to perfect acuity”.
Cooper made a more significant contribution to divided Paris as a traveling writer who came to live there in 1826 and wrote about it in Gleanings from Europe: France (1837). Reading his description of the city seen from the heights of Montmartre, I remembered the skies and landscapes that Balzac admired in novels like La Prairie.
Cooper feels “lucky in our sky, which was well shrouded in cloud and at times darkened by mists.” After admitting that “bright sunshine may suit particular scenes and moods”, he finds that “as a rule, clouds, and very frequently, partial darkness, greatly facilitate a landscape”, which is ” even truer for a bird’s eye view of an old gray mass of walls, which abandon their confused and dark objects all the better that they do not dazzle.I like to study a place teeming with historical memories, under this light; letting the sites of memorable scenes emerge, one by one, from the gray mass of darkness, as time delivers its facts to the darkness of the ages.
“In Cooper’s beautiful text”, comments da Costa Meyer, “a benevolent and docile nature collaborates with the story in a world that providence has made significant.” She sees Cooper’s account “in contrast to the stubborn opacity of Paris under the dark and profane gaze” of photographer Nadar, whose “desperate cry underscores the role of fantasy in the construction of memory and suggests that the object of desire was partly the city itself, the great seductress.
The combination of the bird’s-eye view and Paris as a great seductress brings to mind Balzac, his death, Hugo’s prayer in the Père La Chaise cemetery and one of the greatest moments of La Comédie Humaine, the conclusion of Father Goriot.
In his speech delivered at Balzac’s funeral on August 21, 1850, Hugo said: “Unbeknownst to him, whether he likes it or not, whether he consents to it or not, the author of this immense and strange work is of the strong race of revolutionary writers. . Balzac goes straight to the point. Body to body, it seizes modern society; He wrests something from everyone, from these an illusion, from those a hope; one a keyword, the other a mask. He sacked vice, he dissected passion. He researched and probed the man, the soul, the heart, the entrails, the brain, the abyss that each one has within.
As Hugo spoke from the tomb of Père La Chaise, “the sun set and all Paris appeared in the distance in the splendid mist of the setting orb”. Cooper’s “beautiful text” on the view of Montmartre avoids formulations like “splendid mist” and “setting orb”, but “All Paris” means everything that comes from Hugo, especially knowing that at that time, it stands where Eugène Rastignac de Balzac stood after the burial of Father Goriot. From the top of the cemetery, Rastignac saw Paris “spread out below on both banks of the winding Seine. Lights were starting to flicker here and there. His gaze was fixed almost avidly on the space which extended between the column of the Place Vendôme and the dome of the Invalides; there lay the splendid world he wished to conquer. He looked at the buzzing hive with a look that presaged its spoliation, as if he already felt the sweetness of its honey on his lips, and said with superb defiance: “It’s war between us now!”
Translations and regrets
The quoted passages from Cousine Bette and Father Goriot have been translated by Marion Ayton Crawford. The regrets are that I cannot do justice to the riches of Paris Partagé, which I started reading less than a week ago. One of the particular pleasures of the book is the refreshing variety of quotations from da Costa Meyer, which remind me of Walter Benjamin’s great collection, The Arcades Project, a volume I keep close at hand, as I will Divided Paris, which contains a passage from Franz Kafka I saved for the end. This is from the chapter titled “Requiem”, where the lost towns in the city are both mourned and manifested.
We walk through the wide streets of the newly built city. But our steps and our looks are uncertain. Inside we tremble as before in the ancient streets of our misery. Our heart knows nothing of the slum clearance that has been achieved. The unhealthy old Jewish city within us is far more real than the hygienic new city around us. Eyes open, we walk through a dream: we are only the ghost of a bygone era.